Saudi Arabia Culture: A Middle-Eastern Lilliput
Saudi Arabia Culture: A Middle-Eastern Lilliput Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010
Colonel Darwish Ali Salamah is a self-confessed romantic. When he retired from the Saudi Air Force seventeen years ago, he found that he had time on his hands and art in his soul. "I love to go out into the desert or up into the mountains. I love the moon and the sea. I felt it was better to kill time with something productive,"…. he reflected, as he gazed out over the spectacular grounds of his residence -- spectacular because it is here that he has created a Middle-Eastern Lilliput.
Seventeen years ago, a friend said to him: "You have the eggs of the arts inside you. Now it's time for them to hatch." And hatched they certainly have.
It all began in the colonel's own garden. "I like to work with my hands and I've always had an interest in gardening," he reminisced, instinctively pruning discoloured leaves as we stroll through the grounds of his home. "Why not design my garden differently, I considered. First, I decided to landscape by building a 'mountain' with a waterfall. I laid pipes inside the mountain and had the water flow down the side. Then I started building houses on this mountain. You can see architecture from all over Saudi Arabia in my garden." Indeed, architectural styles from Najd, Asir, Hijaz, Makkah, Madinah, Riyadh and Dhahran juxtapose colourfully within his four walls. Research into the various Saudi architectural styles was inadvertently taking place during the colonel's air force days.
After enlisting in the Saudi Air Force in 1954, Ali Salamah was sent to a flying school in Cairo. One of his Egyptian instructors was a pilot named Hosni Mubarak, now the Egyptian president. On receiving his wings, he returned to the Kingdom where he flew fighters out of Dhahran.
Colonel Salamah's career in the air dealt him one particularly close call. Bad weather and loss of communication during a training flight forced him to ditch the aircraft he was operating in the Arabian Gulf when it ran out of fuel. He only just managed to extricate himself from his harness before the plane disappeared beneath the waves. But, thankfully, the colonel's flying career was not always so hair raising.
"When I was a pilot, I was flying allover the Kingdom. Everywhere I went, I used to love visiting the surrounding countryside. Down south, I would go into the mountains. In Riyadh, I was captivated by the red sands found in that area. I even used to bring some back home with me," he explained. By the time he started building, he already had a wealth of first hand knowledge of the Kingdom's rich architectural heritage. Even the distinctive Madayyen Salah is featured along his side wall.
The construction of these miniatures is as solid as any full size villa. Ali Salamah reinforces concrete with iron bars and netting as he builds. The paint work is equally enduring. Many of his pieces are now over ten years old and show no sign of deterioration from exposure to the elements. To prove their sturdiness, he took a tiny villa -- about 15cm (6 inches) tall and 10cm (4 inches) wide -- and balanced his entire weight on its diminutive roof. Effortlessly, the villa withstood the demonstration.
Although the main thrust of his work is in the Saudi style, Ali Salamah can turn his hand to architecture from all over the world. He once received a commission from an American to reproduce the family home in Philadelphia. "I remember the number of his house was 102. He wanted to surprise his family when they visited the Kingdom, by presenting them with a model of their Philadelphian home," smiled the colonel. "They were amazed to find a replica of their house all the way over here. They took it home with them."
Not everything Ali Salamah builds is purely ornamental. His swimming pool is surrounded by plants housed in pots, which are works of art in themselves. Villas 70cm tall double decoratively as planters. And in a fanciful departure from his typical style, he has constructed mini cars which also sprout trees and shrubbery.
The colonel is receptive to taking on projects large or small. "My dream is to construct a complete town along the lines of Disneyland. I could include all Saudi regions, other Middle Eastern countries and even international theme areas," said Ali Salamah -- adding, wishfully, "Should an entrepreneur wish to sponsor such a project, I would be delighted to work with him."
What began as a hobby for this retiree, has burgeoned into a fully-fledged profession. Darwish Ali Salamah has already fulfilled some of his dreams. "I never imagined my hobby would grow into such a large scale project," he mused, as he ambled through his unique grounds.
As if on cue, the setting sun split into rays through the fronds of a date palm spotlighting the turrets he had constructed so many years ago -- yet still fresh and thriving, just like the colonel.